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When Was the New Testament Written?

When was the New Testament written? One way to answer this is to list the New Testament books and give their approximate date of composition. If you’re looking more for a book-by-book summary of the books and their dates, I totally recommend an excellent article by John Whittaker called “How Many New Testament Books and What Do They Teach?” This article takes a step back and asks more of a big-picture question about the dating of the New Testament. Amid skeptical claims that the New Testament includes a lot of legendary stories, which way does the evidence point us? To a later, legendary New Testament OR to a New Testament written within the lifetimes of people experiencing the events themselves? Discerning out which way the evidence points is the purpose of this article.

Before we get to the when behind the New Testament, let’s pause and ask a couple preliminary questions:

  • First, what exactly is the New Testament?
  • Second, why does it matter when the New Testament was written?

What exactly is the New Testament?

First of all, the New Testament isn’t a book—rather, it’s a collection of books written by Jesus’ early followers. In God’s Word, Dr. Orpheus Heyward describes the New Testament as “the apostles’ teachings in twenty-seven books that reveal a new covenant through Jesus the Messiah and how the covenant was lived out in the early church.”[1] Since the New Testament is a collection of books written at different times, then we won’t be able to give a single, one-date answer to when it was written. But we can explore a general range of when the writings were penned.

Why does it matter when the New Testament was written?

Does it matter when the New Testament books were written? Let’s imagine. Let’s say that we found out that John’s Gospel was actually written in the second half of the second century A.D. (sometime between A.D. 150 and 200)? Would such a discovery change anything?

Well, throughout the Gospel of John, the author never actually names himself. Instead, he keeps referring to the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20). Then at the end of the Gospel, he says that he is the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” and that he is the one who wrote all these stories down (John 21:24).

But let’s say that the Gospel was actually written over a hundred years after the events: the events happened in the A.D. 30s, but he’s writing between A.D. 150 and 200. If so, then the author can’t be telling the truth about himself. He couldn’t have written these events from first-person experience as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

And that’s why this question matters. The New Testament authors are people who either claim to be Jesus’ apostles or people who who knew the apostles firsthand. So, if the New Testament writings were actually written long after that generation would have already died, then much of the New Testament would be forgeries. People who want to discredit the New Testament need to be able to separate the writings from that generation of people who would have known Jesus firsthand.


“The New Testament authors are people who either claim to be Jesus’ apostles or people who who knew the apostles firsthand.”


So, let’s explore which direction the facts point: to a New Testament written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses—or after those eyewitnesses would have died.

When was the New Testament written? Let’s ask the manuscripts.

Remember back to our imaginary scenario of discovering that the Gospel of John was written in the second half of the second century (A.D. 150 to 200)? That’s not purely hypothetical. There was a time when some scholars assigned that late of a date to the Fourth Gospel.

Then, in 1920, a credit-card sized fragment of a Greek manuscript was discovered in Egypt. It was a strip of a manuscript of the Gospel of John (a section from John 18), and it dated to the first half of the second century, perhaps as early as A.D. 125. Now, this was not a fragment torn off from the original. It was a fragment from a handwritten copy (a “manuscript”) of the Gospel of John.

Logically, what did this discovery tell us about the late date of the Gospel of John (written A.D. 150 to 200)? Since a copy can’t come before the original, this discovery told us that the Gospel of John had to have been written no later than the first half of the second century. Also, the fragment was found in Egypt (and the original was written in Ephesus, Asia Minor); thus, we need to allow time for the book’s distribution.

This fragment, called the “John Ryland’s Fragment” remains the earliest copy of a New Testament book we have. Because a copy logically comes after its original, manuscripts are one way to help us discern the dates of New Testament books, and at least in the case of the John Ryland’s Fragment, the manuscript pointed us earlier than where critical scholarship had settled.


When was the New Testament written? “Because a copy logically comes after its original, manuscripts are one way to help us discern the dates of New Testament books.”


When was the New Testament written? Let’s ask the quotations.

Another way to help us know when New Testament books were written is by looking at quotations of the New Testament found in other writings. An early church leader named Clement of Rome quoted from numerous New Testament books. Since Clement died around A.D. 99, we can safely assume that the books he quoted from (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter) were written before A.D. 99.

Similarly, Ignatius of Antioch died approximately A.D. 110. We find in his writings quotations from all four Gospels, Acts, all of Paul’s letters (except for 2 Thessalonians), Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1 & 3 John, and Revelation.

There are other early church leaders whose writings quote the New Testament (e.g., Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus), and all of these make the same point. But taking just the writings of the first two we mentioned—Clement and Ignatius—we’ve already got quotations from 24 of the 27 New Testament books, all logically written prior to A.D. 110.


When was the New Testament written? “Another way to help us know when New Testament books were written is by looking at quotations of the New Testament found in other writings.”


From this and other evidence, it’s no surprise that even skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman places all the New Testament books somewhere within the 1st century A.D.[2] The latest books to be written in the New Testament were written by the apostle John. There are five books ascribed to him (the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John, and Revelation), and each are typically dated in the A.D. 90s, as he likely died in the late 90s.

When was the New Testament written? Let’s ask the events.

What was the September 11/Pearl Harbor equivalent for the Jews during their years under the Roman Empire? It was the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 under Titus. In the books of Acts, the apostle Paul is imprisoned in Jerusalem (Acts 21 to 23). He is then moved to Caesarea, 60 miles north of Jerusalem, for two years (Acts 23 to 26). The final two chapters of Acts narrate Paul’s imprisoned seven-month journey to Rome for a two-year-stay. Two years into Paul’s house imprisonment in Rome, the book of Acts ends. There’s no mention of the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem.

Here’s something else that Acts does not mention: the deaths of Paul (A.D. 68) or Peter (A.D. 67). According to the early church historian Eusebius, Paul and Peter were both put to death during the regime of Roman emperor Nero, whose reign lasted from A.D. 54 to 68. Now, let’s think about this. If Acts does not mention the deaths of its two most prominent characters or the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, what’s the logical conclusion we ought to make? Those things had very likely not happened yet.

There’s also no mention of the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus and a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). Josephus narrates James’ stoning as being between the procuratorship of Festus and Albinus, and thus in the year A.D. 62. When we line up the dates of Paul’s seven-month journey to Rome and two-year house arrest (at which time the book of Acts ends), it puts the ending of the book of Acts around A.D. 62.


When was the New Testament written? “When we line up the dates of Paul’s seven-month journey to Rome and two-year house arrest, it puts the ending of the book of Acts around A.D. 62.”


Thus, it seems likely to put the book of Acts in the year A.D. 62. If so, then what book has to come before A.D. 62? Acts was a return as Part 2 in a 2-volume series of books. What was Part 1? Part 1 was the Gospel of Luke, to which the book of Acts refers back in Acts 1:1. Now, if the Gospel of Luke was written before A.D. 62, what else had to have been written before A.D. 62? The answer is the Gospel of Mark—since Luke (as well as Matthew) borrowed some of his information and wording from Mark (who wrote down what he heard from Peter, according to Irenaeus.

Let’s summarize: From important events (both events that were narrated and events which went un-narrated), we can infer that the Book of Acts, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of Mark were written no later than A.D. 62.

While we’re at it, let’s complete the logic:

  • Whatever Paul wrote would have been written no later than A.D. 68 (when Paul died).
  • Whatever Peter wrote would have been written no later than A.D. 67 (when Peter died).
  • Whatever James wrote would have been written no later than A.D. 62 (when James died).

Although skeptics have claimed that many of the New Testament stories are more legend than fact, their claim isn’t helped by the close proximity of the writings to the events themselves. There’s not the span of time needed for legend to supplant the historical events.


“Although skeptics have claimed that many of the New Testament stories are more legend than fact, their claim isn’t helped by the close proximity of the writings to the events themselves.


When was the New Testament written? Let’s ask the creeds.

While we’re discussing the dates of the writings themselves, it’s worth noting that there are sayings quoted within the New Testament which take us back further still. There seem to be creeds, hymns, and confessions quoted in New Testament books which point us to an earlier stratum of material. Here are some likely examples:

“Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11, NIV)


“…Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God…”


“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV)

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-7)


“…For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance…”


Notice the high view of Jesus, his miracles, and his divine nature in these early sayings. It simply goes against the facts to assume that it took a long time for Jesus’ followers to view him as the resurrected, divine Son of God.

The third passage quoted (1 Corinthians 15:1-7) is worth pausing and reflecting on, especially as it relates to dates. Paul’s conversion to following Jesus is generally placed between A.D. 32 to 35. A couple years in, he travels to Jerusalem to meet with church leaders (A.D. 37 or before). Thus, this credal statement of Jesus’ resurrection which Paul “received” and “passed on to you as of first importance” goes back to within 2 to 5 years of Jesus’ life.

Conclusion

The consistent message of New Testament manuscripts, quotations, events, and creeds alike is that the New Testament writings come to us far earlier than skeptics of the New Testament would find comfortable. These were written by people who would have known whether what they were writing was true or false. And their willingness to suffer and even die for what they wrote suggest that they were telling the truth.


[1] Orpheus J. Heyward, God’s Word: The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (RENEW.org, 2021), 37.

[2] For the dates he assigns to each New Testament book, see Bart Ehrman’s A Brief Introduction to the New Testament.

[3] See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter 9, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-20.html.

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